Doobie do or doobie don't?

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During last month's midterm elections in the US Californian voters narrowly rejected a proposal to legalise cannabis. But what does this mean for the policy of prohibition?

As voters across the US went to the polls last month for the midterm elections, Californians voted on whether cannabis should be made legal to buy, sell and grow in the state.

While the Proposition 19 vote failed, it was significant. Overall, 46 percent of voters called for legalisation, with 54 percent against. This was despite both the Democratic and Republican contenders for Congress opposing legalisation, and warnings that ending prohibition would be legally problematic as it would have clashed uncomfortably with federal law.

But it wasn't just the San Francisco hippies who were fighting for legalisation. California has an estimated budget deficit of $26 billion, which in October led governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to announce budget cuts of $7.8 billion. This is in addition to the tens of billions of dollars cut over the past few years - cuts described by Schwarzenegger himself as "draconian".

There is an inconvenient truth for the conservatives: thanks to a history of hippy farmers, drug cartels, medicinal marijuana grower collectives and a considerable number of savvy entrepreneurs, marijuana is the largest cash crop in the state, worth an estimated $14 billion. This dwarfs even the famous Californian wine industry, worth just $2 billion.

Medicinal marijuana has been legally available in the state since 1996 for conditions such as glaucoma, cancer, Aids and anorexia. To obtain it, all you need is a doctor's recommendation. This sector rakes in $200 million in taxes annually.

It has become increasingly socially acceptable to use cannabis recreationally. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health in 2009, 5.2 percent of people in the US over the age of 12 will have used marijuana within the past month. Last month Schwarzenegger himself, while perhaps not the best litmus test for public opinion, claimed, "Nobody cares if you smoke or not." The governor went on to claim that Proposition 19 failed due to its complicated wording. That's probably not true. But it is true that Schwarzenegger has already reduced the consequences for being caught with under an ounce of cannabis from a misdemeanour to a civil infraction - likened to receiving a parking ticket. Proposition 19 even won the support of libertarian elements of the Tea Party.

All of this is reflected in the response of a section of the ruling class to moves for legalisation. Some of the trendier billionaires, including Facebook co-founders Dustin Moskovitz and Sean Parker, and financier George Soros, publicly and financially backed the proposition.

The Democratic Party in California held no formal line on the issue, with representatives falling both sides of the debate. Many elected officials backed Proposition 19, including a host of Congress representatives, senators and city councils. Others were not so keen, including Jerry Brown, the governor-elect of the state. Brown has been governor before. In 1975 he signed a law to decriminalise cannabis. Now, however, he has this to say on legalisation: "If the whole society starts getting stoned, we're going to be even less competitive. And we're going to have more broken families and more angry husbands and wives."

Legalisation would inevitably have an impact on the growth and export of marijuana from South America. As many of South America's drug laws are imposed by Washington as part of the perpetual "war on drugs", it would cause massive complications if California, the biggest economy in the US, legalised cannabis.

Prohibition is also useful to law enforcement. In 2009 there were 858,408 arrests for cannabis offences in the US, 758,593 of which were simply for possession. The biggest group suffering from prohibition is African-Americans. According to the US government, young black people are far less likely to use marijuana than young white people. Yet young blacks are still far more likely to be arrested for possession. Los Angeles County, for example, is home to 10 million people, around 1 million of whom are black. Yet black people make up some 30 percent of those arrested for possession in the county.

So Proposition 19 became a broader civil rights issue, and won support from the NAACP. Most damning for the law enforcers themselves, the proposition was also backed by the National Black Police Association and the National Latino Officers Association.

It was also welcomed by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, the third largest in the country. The UFCW claims to represent over 1,000 marijuana workers in the Bay Area alone, and it is understandable that these workers want legalisation. The grip of organised crime is huge in California, which is bad news for low paid migrant workers who are made to do the most dangerous work. They are sent out at night to risk their lives cultivating marijuana in California's vast expanse of public mountains and canyons.

Legalisation would have regulated the huge black market, whose clandestine growing is kept behind barbed wire fences and protected by armed security guards. It could also have created thousands of new jobs, a tempting prospect for a state with 12.4 percent unemployment.

But it would be a mistake to think that legalisation would usher in some sort of mellow utopia for California's users. Some small time farmers fear that sooner or later the corrupting claws of agribusiness, big pharma and the tobacco companies will sink into the fertile Californian soil. For these powerful players, legalisation would crack open a long evasive market.

So now the vote is lost, the uneasy tension between California's legal, semi-legal and illegal growers continues, as does the tension between the stacks of contradictory laws regarding the growth and use of cannabis at county, state and federal levels.

But the fact that the vote was so close shows that legalisation in California isn't just a pipe dream. For most people it goes without saying that you shouldn't be thrown in jail for smoking a spliff, and the obvious question of why a cash-strapped economy can't tax its most profitable natural asset remains unanswered. Increasingly, the tired old scare stories of reefer madness roaching away the moral fabric of society are going up in smoke.